Friends and family of Maine activist Nicole Mokeme allege that the boyfriend charged in connection with her murder showed signs of violence long before her death, describing him as possessive and jealous, and prone to destructive outbursts and recklessness.
Raymond Lester, 35, was charged with murder on Monday in the hit-and-run death of Mokeme, and investigators say he remains on the run. Mokeme, 35, a well-known South Portland activist, was killed at a weeklong Juneteenth retreat celebrating Black excellence that she’d organized at the Schoodic Institute at Acadia National Park.
Authorities launched a nationwide search for Lester and his vehicle, a 2016 Black BMW X3 bearing Maine registration 5614WM. Police believe the vehicle may have sustained front-end or undercarriage damage.
Court and police records show Lester had a long history of domestic violence convictions, dating back to 2008. His behavior made many of Mokeme’s friends uncomfortable, and they tried to keep their distance.
“Nicole always saw the best in everyone,” said her friend, Jenique Tairne, who met Mokeme years ago when she lived in the Portland area. “And that was the beauty of her, but it was also to her detriment.”
Messages to Lester, his sister, and mother were not returned.
Mokeme, whose life’s work was dedicated to uplifting Black and Indigenous children and families, was a familiar face in her community. At the time of her death, Mokeme had been dating Lester for more than three years.
In a Valentine’s Day Facebook post Mokeme published last year, she describes meeting him through his sister. They were close friends for seven months, Mokeme wrote, before they got serious. Between the two of them, Lester, she wrote, was more sensitive, more impatient, and louder, but she was more stubborn and wore “the pants” in their relationship.
But many of Mokeme’s friends and family struggled to warm to Lester. To them, he came across as controlling, paranoid, and at times, dangerous.
He claimed he was an executive at the business Mokeme started, the Rise and Shine Youth Retreat program, which offered self-development getaways for children of color. He also tried to guide Mokeme’s decision-making, despite having no relevant experience himself, said Mokeme’s close friend, Marion Sloan, of South Portland.
His outbursts frightened Mokeme. On one occasion, she locked him out of the house in Bowdoin where she was building a retreat center and cooperative living space, Sloan said, and he allegedly busted open the patio door.
In 2020, a group of Black community organizers arranged a meeting with Mokeme about Lester’s unwelcome presence in spaces that were designed to be safe for people with marginalized identities, according to another friend, Truth Malivia Nichols, who was there.
Mokeme once called Sloan sobbing because Lester falsely accused her of cheating on him — with Sloan.
“He was always accusing someone. ... It doesn’t matter if you’re a girl or a guy. That was his biggest thing,” Sloan said. “He would get very angry and think that she was [cheating].”
Public records show Lester was arrested for a domestic violence assault in November 2008, for which he was sentenced to 22 days in jail. In 2010, he was again charged with domestic violence, and theft, and ordered to spend 45 days behind bars. A few months after pleading guilty, he violated a protection order and served another five days in jail.
Lester was charged for a third time with domestic violence assault in July 2011, in addition to criminal mischief. He pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor and was sentenced to six months in jail. He was arrested and convicted several more times between 2012 and 2018 for a variety of offenses, including felony theft, misuse of identification, refusing to submit to arrest, and disorderly conduct, according to his Maine criminal history record.
In an interview with The Portland Press Herald, an ex-girlfriend whom Lester was convicted of assaulting said he physically abused not only her, but their infant children. Their relationship ended, she told the newspaper, after he broke her jaw with a hammer and strangled her until she lost consciousness.
Emeka Mokeme, Nicole Mokeme’s uncle, who lives in Lagos, Nigeria, said his niece was open with him about her turbulent relationship with Lester. In a WhatsApp call in February, he said, Mokeme alleged that Lester used to hit her.
“I said, ‘Just walk away quietly. Tell him you need to end it,’” Emeka Mokeme said he told her.
In April 2021, Sloan decided she no longer felt safe around Lester. Sloan, her sister, and her sister’s boyfriend had been helping Mokeme run a youth program at Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences in Boothbay. The four of them were sitting at a table in a large kitchen on campus, while children in the program were taking part in a cooking contest. Lester was “fuming” that evening, Sloan said, and accused Sloan’s sister’s boyfriend of “messing around with” Mokeme. Lester started smacking dishes, glasses, and utensils off the table before flipping it over in a rage.
The children hid in a closet, Sloan said, and emerged later in tears.
Lester was charged afterward with one count of assault and received a deferred disposition, according to Lincoln County District Attorney Natasha Irving, in which he agreed to mental health counseling, plus no new criminal conduct or contact with Sloan’s sister’s boyfriend for a year.
“In a case like this, if we were to have a guilty plea, the court would be unlikely to impose more than a 10-21 day jail sentence, and when completed, the defendant would not be prohibited from contact with the victim,” Irving said in an e-mail to the Globe. “My prosecutor had a good faith belief that mental health treatment and no contact with the victim were the best bet for public safety.”
For Sloan, this was the last straw. She had urged Mokeme to leave Lester before, but Mokeme always demurred. Finally, Mokeme agreed with her, Sloan said, and broke things off with Lester. But a few months ago, Sloan learned they’d started dating again.
“I told [Mokeme], ‘He’s no good for you. You can do better’,” Sloan said. “He was troubled and it just didn’t fit.”
Nichols, who is transgender, never felt comfortable around Lester. He made comments she felt were transphobic. She left the Schoodic retreat on the morning of June 18, two days before it was scheduled to end, partly because Lester and his family were there.
She doesn’t know what transpired between Lester and Mokeme in the hours leading up to the activist’s death. Now she is one of many loved ones left searching for answers.
“I just want to know what happened to my friend. Was there something that we could have done? Was she running for her life? Was she struggling? Was it instant?” Nichols said. “Why all this silence?”